How to start speaking your native language after years of using the majority language with your child?

 

Question

Hello

I’m very glad to find this website. I have three years old daughter. Our language is Urdu but we start communicating with our daughter in English. In start it was okay but now we are feeling difficulty to explain things to her in English as she is growing and asking background of things. In broad perspective it’s difficult to explain.

I start talking in Urdu now because I was feeling communications gap. I need advice how to do it, is it too late? We select foreign language over native language. Our concepts formation is in our Urdu language and she is good in English speaking vocabulary due to watching TV. We are in America and her school start next year.

Amna

Answer

Dear Amna,

Thank you for your kind feedback and for your question about starting to talk your native language, Urdu, with your daughter.

I fully agree with your decision to introduce Urdu to your daughter. It is important for all parents to feel comfortable about the language they use to communicate with their children. Whether the initial decision to speak English was your own or someone recommended it to you, it is not too late to switch to speaking Urdu.

From other parents’ experiences, I know that there are unfortunately still many professionals who recommend that parents in families with a different home language use the society’s majority language to “speed up” the children’s learning. There are many reasons why this advice is outdated and proven by research to not to be correct.

A solid home language – independent of which language it is – is vital for a child’s language development in all further languages. Just as you describe, it is important for a child to learn essential concepts and abstract ideas, and a parent should be able to express him/herself confidently in the language used with the child to help the child learn. The understanding of such concepts in the home language is then transferable to other languages the child learns.

The relationship between a child and a parent is extremely important and the language of communication is a central part of it. For this reason, any parent should use a language they can fully express themselves in, are able to answer a child’s questions and can in general explain things happening in the child’s life.

Another reason to keep the home language, your native language Urdu in your case, is that if parents want to maintain the family heritage language, the children need to learn it at home. Not speaking it with the children signals that it is not as important, that it is of less value than the majority language.

Based on your description, you daughter already knows English, so she will be able to fully participate in school life from day one. Her English will also quickly develop when she is immersed in the language at school. In addition, she will continue to get exposed to English through media, other children and generally in the community.

You have not mentioned whether your daughter is used to hearing Urdu around her – e.g. do you have family members that you still speak Urdu with, or has she been surrounded by Urdu in other social situations? If yes, she would probably have picked up some of it already, and you can build on this. If not, then you will have to start very gently and use English to explain when necessary.

I would not recommend switching to speaking only Urdu from one day to another unless your daughter understands what you say and is happy with it. When you notice that she does not understand, explain the same thing (still in Urdu) in a different way and use gestures whenever you can. Use English when necessary, but follow it up by also saying it in Urdu.

Be prepared that she may not agree with you switching the language you speak with her – this happened to me when I switched from Finnish to Swedish with my eldest daughter. You should not be discouraged if it happens – it is a natural reaction from a child. You should however be wary of forcing the language on her; instead find a way for her to want to use it. You know your daughter best, think about what she really likes and find a way to incorporate Urdu into it.

A great way to start is to use Urdu in situations where what you say is obvious based on what you are doing. For example, use only Urdu when you are dressing her – mentioning the different pieces of clothing, legs, arms, head etc. Do the same at breakfast and dinner time: ask whether she wants water or milk, showing the drinks as you speak. Say “Here is your spoon” when you hand it to her, “Pass me your glass” and reach out your hand when you want to pour her a drink.

Get used to speaking a lot, and repeating words in different contexts. Let’s say she asks you (in English) “Where is my ball?” – you could answer (in Urdu) “Oh, you want your ball. Which ball do you want? Are you looking for the red ball? We will find your ball – let’s search for the ball together.”

It will take a good while before your daughter answers you in Urdu, so you will need patience throughout this process. If you have other family members who speak Urdu, ask them to help you in offering your daughter as much Urdu exposure as possible. Interaction with other children in Urdu would be a great motivator for her, so if you can find other small children who naturally use Urdu as their first language for her to play with, this would be a great boost for her learning Urdu.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards,
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

 

 

 

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